The Poisoned City’, Katrina S. Forest

Illustrations © 2014 Michael Csontos

 [ Hello, © 2014 Michael Csontos ] Directions for delivery inside package, read the obnoxiously yellow tag. Bria rolled her eyes while slowly inhaling the warm, open air. The sky was a perfect shade of pre-dawn indigo, and she could see the microbe research lab silhouetted on the horizon. Of course, that sight just pissed her off more, so she turned her gaze back to the refrigerator-sized crate in front of her.

She never opened anything unless instructed by her client. Doing so would just make it more tempting to sell off the contents. Since the package came from outside the city, she already knew its contents were clean, but clean what? Clothes? Rations? Untainted food and water went for a lot these days. Sighing, she leaned down, wrenched open the latches, and lifted the lid.

A man’s face stared back at her.

Bria jumped back. Technically, the guy wasn’t staring; he had his eyes closed, his body all scrunched up into a fetal position. His black slacks and tank top matched his thin, dark hair with impressive accuracy.

Bria forced her breathing to slow down. She’d made her terms perfectly clear to her clients, hadn’t she? She’d deliver anything they wanted to anywhere in the Poisoned City, but dead bodies were out of the question.

Well, you’ve got one in front of you anyway. What are you going to do about it? She took a step closer to the unconscious figure. Taking a closer look over the man’s body, with its jointed arms and fingers, she instantly felt like a complete fool.

A doll. Bria had seen plenty of them, but unlike many people in the city, she didn’t actually own one. Trying to muster whatever dignity she had left, she knelt down next to the open crate and turned the doll’s head to one side.

Still no address, but someone had stuck another bright yellow label on his shoulder: Will communicate delivery directions upon transporter’s receipt.

Did that mean she was supposed to wake him up? Would’ve been helpful to say how. She pushed the thing’s shoulder, but its body just shifted a bit and nothing more.

Probably responds to voice. Bria sighed. She spoke to her neighbors on occasion, but since she mostly pantomimed through those conversations, she had no clue how her pronunciation would fare against a machine.

“Hey, you,” she said. Nothing. She moved her tongue across the roof of her mouth and focused hard on getting the words just right.

“Hey,” she said again. “Get up.”

The doll obeyed. Its deep gray eyes flashed open, and it sat up in the crate, fixing its gaze on her face.

“Hello, Bria Holden,” it signed with eerily fluid hand movements. “My name is Kristopher. Your directions are to transport me to the designated drop-off site within twenty-four hours.”

Bria nodded curtly. The doll had all the hand movements of sign language down, but its expressions were so… well, mechanical. “Designated drop-off site?” she repeated. “You wanna be more specific?”

“My destination is a chemical lab within the Poisoned City. More detailed directions will follow.”

Bria shrugged. Good enough for her. She tore all the labels from the wooden crate the doll had arrived in, then shoved the thing down a nearby ditch. It vibrated the ground with its crash, slamming into the pile of trash that other transporters and their clients had tossed down there. Stirred up a nasty smell, too. Satisfied, Bria pulled open her truck’s passenger door and motioned Kristopher in.

“So what’s a chemical lab going to do with a doll?” Bria asked when the road had smoothed out from the broken pavement near the city’s border. At least, smoothed out enough that she could sign and drive without smacking herself in the face. “Did they give you the memories of some brilliant scientist or something?”

Kristopher shook his head. “No, nothing like that. I’m a poison detection system.”

“A what?” The shock was enough that Bria almost lost control of the truck. The vehicle swerved, and she quickly pulled it to the side of the road, piercing the air with the scent of burnt rubber.

“You said… you’re…”

“A poison detection system,” he repeated. “That means I can—”

“I know what it means!” Bria signed, blocking his hands. She ran her fingers through her hair and wished for a cigarette. She hadn’t craved one of those in months. The biggest problem with the Poisoned City, the reason that people kept dying as they did, was that no one was actually sure where the poison came from. The official theory stated that some kind of naturally-mutated, toxin-producing pathogen had gotten into the water supply and could turn into a nationwide epidemic if the whole city wasn’t locked down like a prison. Bria had her own theories. Mostly about the “naturally-mutated” part.

But Kristopher had said that he could detect the poison. Bria shook her head. It’d save a few dozen millionaires, maybe, if it was true. There was no saving this whole place anymore. There was making enough money for herself to buy clean food, and that was it. Which meant if Kristopher could do what he said, the street value of that… well, maybe Bria could break her perfect record and sell off her cargo after all.

“So, a desperately needed item gets sent through an illegal transporter right when people are most likely to be asleep,” she said. “Now who would do that, I wonder?” Kristopher seemed to be thinking for a moment, for as much as she expected a doll to think.

“Your client sent me. To help the people inside the city learn how to make an antidote.”

At this, Bria laughed. “Yeah, right. Does Mr. ‘Your Client’ have any other names?”

Kristopher gave her a puzzled look. “‘Your Client’ is not the client’s name. The client wanted to remain anonymous.”

“This wouldn’t be because he’s the idiot who accidentally let his little experiment loose in our water supply, would it?”

Kristopher hung his head. “Your client wanted to remain anonymous,” he repeated. Figured.

After half an hour of driving without a word between them, Bria finally decided. She’d take Kristopher to his destination, but whether or not she actually handed him over was another story. First she’d see how much the original addressee was willing to pay. Maybe she wouldn’t need an auction to find the highest bidder. But before any of that, she had a smaller delivery to make, and she needed a serious caffeine fix.

Bria pulled the truck down one of the narrow side streets. All the “drink-like-its-my-last-day-on-earth” partygoers had left by now, leaving the apartments’ parking spaces open for people who actually lived there. Bria liked to think she was one of the more sane residents. If for no other reason, her deafness shielded her from the screams of death that had driven most people mad by now.

As Bria led Kristopher out of the truck, she noticed a man in a blue bathrobe stumbling down the steps next to her, a baby in one arm and a bag of trash in the other.

She waved to get his attention, then held out her hand to take the trash bag. The city might’ve been doomed, but that didn’t mean she had to be a jackass to her neighbors. Especially her regular customer neighbors.

The man, Mr. Connor, looked surprised at first. Then relief passed over his face. “Oh, Bria, it’s you,” he said, lowering the bag so she could get a clear view of his face. Not that she’d brag, but her speechreading was pretty impressive. “Didn’t think anyone else was up this early.”

She shook her head. “Out late.”

“Ah, that explains it. Another job?”

She nodded, made the sign for “eat,” and then shrugged her shoulders. “Gotta eat somehow,” was an easy message to convey when everyone in the neighborhood was thinking it.

The baby girl let out a long yawn. Mr. Connor smiled, but then his shoulders rose and fell in a heavy sigh. “You’re lucky; only one mouth to feed. Whoever worked out the emergency rations did not have kids, believe me. Speaking of which…”

Bria waved one free hand in a “Don’t worry,” motion as she took the bag of trash and lugged it into the overflowing dumpster. She then walked over to the truck, reached through the open back window, and pulled out two glass milk bottles. She put back the one that looked a little less full and handed the other to Mr. Connor. Kristopher stood to the side looking puzzled, his eyes locked on the infant in Mr. Connor’s arms.

“Excuse me,” he said, signing and speaking at the same time. “I was wondering… may I hold the baby?”

Mr. Connor set the milk down. “Who’s this?” he asked, leaving Bria feeling more than a little awkward.

“Oh, just… a doll,” she said, pretty sure she’d butchered her pronunciation while stating the obvious.

“My name is Kristopher,” Kristopher added.

Mr. Connor looked like he hadn’t understood a word Bria had said, but he kept his attention on the doll’s jointed fingers. “Kristopher, eh? That’s a classic name.” Then, without hesitation, he stepped over and placed the infant into Kristopher’s arms.

Bria waved her hand and shook her head. “Oh no, you don’t have to—”

“It’s fine. He’s with you, Bria, so I trust him. Though you’re not the kind of person I’d expect to get a doll. Whose memories does he have? Someone special’s?”

Bria cringed at the thought and shook her head even harder. As if she would cling to a dead mimic like it was a real person. As if she had a real person she cared that much about in the first place.

Mr. Connor nodded in understanding, and the two turned their attention back to Kristopher. The doll clutched the infant in his arms, her warm little face pressed against his cold synthetic one while he swayed. His lips stretched into just the slightest smile, like a new father in a trance of happiness. It looked creepy.

Bria tapped his shoulder. “Okay, Kristopher, you should stop now,” she signed. He eyed her with surprise, as if he’d forgotten she was there. Bria pulled his jointed fingers away from the baby, and handed the infant back to her father.

“Sorry,” she signed to Mr. Connor, circling her fist over her heart. She’d taught him that one when he’d accidently rolled over her foot with a stroller.

“It’s okay, don’t worry about it,” he answered. Then, to Kristopher, he said, “You must’ve been a dad yourself before you changed, eh?”

Kristopher said nothing, and Bria didn’t wait for him to. Bidding a quick farewell to Mr. Connor, she snatched her milk bottle from the truck and led Kristopher up the stairs to her own apartment. She felt like a zombie as she trudged into the kitchen with him in tow.

“Stand here,” she ordered, pointing to the corner. “I need a break before I take you anywhere.” He obeyed, folding his hands and looking around the room.

Bria switched on the coffee machine, her one personal indulgence, and sat the milk on the counter. While the machine warmed up, Bria stole a glance at Kristopher. He looked so clueless, staring at every crack in the paint like it was a new and fascinating discovery.

“So, whose memories do you have?” she asked. “I mean, you sign really well. Was that a past self thing?”

Kristopher shrugged. “My language skills are preprogrammed. I was a baby when they changed me.”

A baby. Of course. Why did she even bother? “Come on, no one changes when they’re a baby,” she signed.

“I did,” signed Kristopher. “I was fourteen months old, and I’d come down with a virus. The doctors said nothing could be done for me. So I changed.”

“The whole point of changing is to take your personality and your memories with you to the doll’s body,” Bria signed. “A baby’s kind of short on both of those. Why would anyone go through the effort?”

Kristopher shrugged. “I don’t know. That’s just what they told me.”

Before Bria could continue her pointless argument, the smell of coffee floated through the air as the machine spit a line of liquid mental fuel into a waiting mug. Bria removed the mug, added a generous portion of milk to the concoction, and began to sip. The heat eased her nerves as she waited for the caffeine to drain the exhaustion from her system. The open milk bottle she shoved towards Kristopher. He stared at it like he didn’t know what it was for and ran his finger along its rim.

“Did you know your milk is poisoned?” he asked. Bria was about to nod until she mentally repeated what he’d just signed.

“Excuse me?”

“I said, ‘did you know that your milk is poisoned?’”

Bria looked into his serious gray eyes. She had never known dolls to joke around before. And if he could do what he had claimed in the truck—

Bria gasped, dropping the mug to the floor. She felt her chest tightening, as if her lungs were squeezing all the oxygen out of them, and try as she might, she couldn’t get enough air to refill them. Her vision blurred.

This couldn’t be happening. This seller’s goods were clean; she knew that for a fact. She knew…

Kristopher was signing something, possibly her name, though she wasn’t making sense of much else. She felt herself falling backwards, slowly, as if someone was lowering her to the ground. The whole room seemed to spin.

Then there was something at her lips. Something small and cold, with bitter liquid pouring out of it. Without thinking, Bria swallowed.

Sometime later, her eyes blinked open. She was lying on the couch in her living room. The ugly egg white ceiling stared back at her. And over her head was Kristopher’s shadow.

“How long was I out…?” Bria began. It was at that moment she realized—her hands were moving. Forget that; her lungs were moving.

“The milk,” she signed, jolting up. A wave of dizziness forced her back down once again. “You gave me something before I passed out.”

“An antidote,” Kristopher signed matter-of-factly.

“Wha—?” Antidote. It was a word that’d been tossed around a lot when the quarantine first started. Lately, it’d felt like the stuff of childish dreams. If she weren’t lying on the couch with evidence to the contrary, Bria would’ve passed off his words as nonsense, just like the idea that he’d changed as an infant. But now…

“So this… this antidote already exists?”

He nodded.

“And you can make it? You have the ingredients?”

“Just a small supply for demonstration purposes,” he replied, pointing to a seam along his exposed chest. “And to use in my mission to arrive safely at the lab, if needed. It has to be administered within thirty minutes of ingesting the poison, though. Otherwise, it’s completely ineffective.”

Bria shook her head. An antidote. The end of the quarantine.

Some part of her brain resisted the thought. The logical part that’d warded her away from insanity and despair. Just because Kristopher could make an antidote didn’t mean anyone could replicate it. And even if someone could replicate it, it didn’t mean they’d distribute it.

But then some other part of her brain, the annoying part, tasted the smallest bit of hope. Would she sell that to the highest bidder?

“Come on, let’s get going,” she signed, sitting up. Her head still swirled a bit, but she forced herself to stand.

Kristopher offered no objections, so the two of them started to leave. They got about five steps when Bria realized.

“Mr. Connor bought that same milk for his kid!”

 [ Kid First, © 2014 Michael Csontos ] She cursed and flung open her front door, but Kristopher neither moved nor spoke. His eyes widened, like someone watching a horror film who couldn’t look away.

“Come on,” Bria signed, taking him by the hand. She tried to mimic the stance she’d seen on Mr. Connor use whenever his daughter broke into a temper tantrum. Firm. Calm. “We can’t make the delivery yet. We have to help Mr. Connor first.”

Again, he made no reply, but followed obediently behind her. The two rushed outside, and Bria saw that Mr. Connor’s door was open a crack. She yelled his name, but nobody appeared. So she shoved open the door and tore through the apartment. Random pieces of laundry lay across the bedroom floor, and the kitchen smelled like a soiled diaper, but still no Mr. Connor. Bria checked the living room. A sippy cup about two-thirds full of milk lay on the carpet, its wet gnawed-on tip glistening in the low light. Next to that, Mr. Connor’s daughter lay on her back, flaying and screaming. Her features were contorted into a wicked expression of pain that had no business on the face of something so small and helpless.

“Mr. Connor?” Bria yelled out again. Still nothing. Enough already. She had to assume the guy had run off, unable to watch what he knew was coming. But how long had he been gone? Ten minutes? An hour?

She turned to Kristopher. “What are you waiting for? Make the antidote already!”

Kristopher’s body stiffened. His hand wavered back and forth, touching his hollow chest and moving away from it again.

“I… I can’t,” he signed with shaking hands. “My orders were to create it only if it was needed for—”

“Oh, come on, don’t spout your mission nonsense at me!” Bria signed. The little girl’s chest rose and fell faster. The color began to fade from her lips.

Kristopher struggled to form words. “T-try ordering me to do it,” he signed.

“Okay, I’m ordering you.”

This time, Kristopher almost opened the compartment on his chest but again pulled back against his will. He gritted his teeth in frustration. Bria’s mind clawed for a way to con his programming. Then her eyes fell to the sippy cup on the floor.

“Bria, do something!” Kristopher signed with wide, desperate motions. His face tightened with the struggle. She’d never seen a doll so desperate, so at war with its own body. After all the death she’d seen, she could drive past anyone taking their last labored breaths without so much as a second glance. But this was different. She’d told Mr. Connor that the milk supply was clean. She’d failed to deliver the goods she’d promised. And unlike the deaths she’d seen before, she now had something she could do about it. Albeit, something suicidal.

Bria exhaled through her teeth. Without another word to Kristopher, she stepped over, removed the cup from the floor, and forced the lid open. When he saw what she was doing, his body finally reacted and he ran towards her, but she was a second too fast, downing the leftover milk in one gulp.

It was poisoned all right. She could feel that the instant she swallowed. Her breathing, like the child’s, grew more and more difficult. But she struggled to keep herself conscious, and to keep Kristopher away from her. Half an hour he’d said. The feel of the poison in her system was less of a shock now. She could stay awake that long.

“No way,” she signed when Kristopher reached for her. “Kid first.”

He stopped, his eyes darting between the poison’s two victims. But instead of freezing up like he did before, Kristopher knelt down and opened up his chest compartment with no issue. Quickly, he reached in and pulled out several vials of various-colored liquids. It was hard to keep an eye on him; Bria’s vision kept going in and out of focus. But she got movement and colors. She saw the child’s frantic, flailing limbs grow calm and playful, the skin color returning to its normal hue. Only then did Bria allow Kristopher to feed her the bitter liquid from the vial in his hands. The world around her came back into focus, her lungs gratefully filling themselves with the city air. Next to her, Kristopher sat cross-legged, stroking the infant’s hair as she sat cradled in his lap.

“Didn’t think… that would work,” Bria signed, her arms quivering with the effort. “Thought you might… just wait until I passed out or something.”

Kristopher shrugged his shoulders. “Don’t be ridiculous. I couldn’t risk you dying. You haven’t delivered me to my destination yet.” He signed it so matter-of-factly, like she might sign, “I can’t leave the water running,” or “I can’t set my apartment on fire.”

“Come on.” She motioned towards the door. “Bring up the coordinates for that chemical lab. I’m taking you straight to your destination before anything else happens. And bring the kid, too.”

Kristopher smiled. “Yes, ma’am.”

The trip to the chemist’s lab took another hour to complete. It was on the bottom floor of a towering building with dark glass windows that stared down condescendingly at all passersby. The front doors, on the other hand, were quite friendly, sliding casually open at Kristopher and Bria’s approach. A bulky man with rust-colored hair and dented glasses rushed out to greet them, shaking Bria’s hand like an old friend. “Bria Holden. Your reputation is certainly well-deserved. Such a quick delivery. I’m Dr. Tempest.” He leaned in a bit closer. “I don’t know how much Kristopher told you, but this will help a lot of people, Bria. I want you to know that.”

Bria nodded solemnly, which seemed to please Dr. Tempest, until he looked more carefully at Kristopher. Then his expression changed to complete bewilderment—the doll was still cradling Mr. Connor’s daughter.

“Um, Kristopher, you’re going to have to let go now,” Bria signed, touching his arm. Kristopher jumped, but seemed to come out of his daze quicker than the first time he’d held the baby. He looked longingly between Bria, the infant, and his destination. In some way, Bria wanted him to fight it like he did last time. She wanted to let him go on holding the child for as long as he cared to. But, of course, it didn’t happen. He was a doll, after all, and he had his assignment to fulfill. Before she realized what was happening, Bria was the one holding Mr. Connor’s daughter and Kristopher was standing at Dr. Tempest’s side.

“Your payment has been sent, Bria,” he signed, his expression as neutral as well they first met. “Thank you very much for your help.”

She couldn’t even lift her hands as she watched Kristopher bow politely and follow Dr. Tempest into the building. The glass door closed, separating them. Her delivery was complete.

For a moment, she just stood there in the stillness, though the infant wriggling broke that up pretty quickly. With a bit of detective work, she should be able to track down Mr. Connor, though he’d probably kill her when he saw her. That was fine—it meant she didn’t have to do the guy’s shopping anymore. Hey, if everything went well, she wouldn’t need to do anyone’s shopping soon. Bria sighed. She envied Kristopher—so sure that everything would work out. Maybe that’s why they gave him the memories of a child. Manipulation, backstabbing, and lying didn’t exist for him. And for the briefest moment as she walked, Bria could imagine that they didn’t exist for her either.

© 2014 Katrina S. Forest

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